Karate? No. Surely not? Not You, Vic! Is often the response I get, when I finally tell someone I am a student of Go Ju Ryu Karate. If I had said I was doing T’ai Chi or Chi Gung or even Aikido or Judo there would be less surprise. Sometimes the surprise is because I weigh less than 50kg, am built like a bird and am known for being rather the opposite of confrontational. Sometimes its because I was over 40 before I even walked into a dojo. Sometimes people are shocked because I am a Feldenkrais teacher and we do lots of slow, gentle movements, are skilled in listening to, following and gently inviting movement in another person to enable (not disable!) and have a tradition of involvement in the softer martial arts. And sometimes (if the person knows me well) they know that while I have done lots of movement all through my life and love being active, I tend only to do things that are verrrry pleasurable to do and have an exploratory or improvisational element. Things like Egyptian dance (wonderful feeling), Argentinian Tango (heaven), Laban and of course Feldenkrais. Even though I was a reasonably sporty kid I got out of field sports like lacrosse (large girls whacking you with big sticks and hurling a piece of solid rubber at your head on a freezing pitch of mud in a short skirt) as fast as I possibly could and into more fun things like fencing (indoors in a nice warm track suit and plenty of protective gear). And these days although I have taken to endurance running (which I love) there is very little discipline, no speed or distance measuring gadgets involved and as little between me the ground and the air as comfort and decency require – and I am much more likely to run any distance on a lovely day in a beautiful place. In short the idea of me training to fight or being at all martial even with the word ‘art’ attached is generally hilarious because of who and how I am. But then of course that’s a big part of why I do it.
Karate. Its not big on pleasure. Not in any obvious way. Yes there is Ju (soft) in Go Ju Ryu but there is also Go (hard) and plenty of it and sometimes I have the bruises to show for it. Lots of it hurts. Press ups. On your knuckles. On the wood floor. Bone strengthening/muscle conditioning by striking and blocking with another person, a punchbag, a piece of slightly padded wood or if you are really hard core (not me): a stone. A fair amount of jumps and burpees and other pretty exhausting fitness training and some dynamic resistance training including a large lump of concrete on the end of half a broom handle. Tons of discipline. And the kata. OK yes, lovely sequences of movement, but very exacting: ‘Do it like this. No not like that, like this. No, your elbow 2 inches higher. Again. Again. Once more. Again …….’ and that’s before we start on sparring which can be a daunting prospect when you opponent is bigger, heavier, stronger, more skilled – and 5,10, even 20 years younger.
In the information about the recent Go Ju Ryu Karate regional competitions they said that this year there would be a veteran class for those who had come to karate later in life and would like to test themselves. It made me smile. For me it can be enough of a test to just keep walking into the dojo every week. Not only the ‘Go’ of it, but the speed, the rhythms, the snap of it; the whole use of self to displace someone else, to take their balance, to take them down, to punch, kick and demonstrate you can hurt them in innumerable and quite unpleasant ways is utterly alien to me. Learning complicated movement fast is also surprisingly hard (shouldn’t a felde be able to do that??) and sometimes I come away feeling slow, stupid, ungainly and frankly old. So where is the pleasure in that? What on earth am I doing this for?? Sensei (the instructor) has just said I can go up for my next grading soon. Its for the belt before brown (4th kyu, purple and white) so its all getting a bit more intense and more demanding. Last grading I walked onto a punch that left me with a 36 hour migraine and the runs. Why do I do this? And what on earth has it got to do with me as a Feldenkrais teacher? I have been giving it a lot of thought. Believe me.
I haven’t been able to write anything about Karate yet. Partly because I haven’t had any answers, just a strong feeling that I wanted to keep doing it and for some reason enjoyed it but I just didn’t know enough about what I was learning in Karate to make any sense of it. And partly because my own personal battle with Karate feels, well, a bit personal. Recently a few things have become a bit clearer, I have begun to appreciate what it is I am learning and what that is doing for me and how it relates to Feldenkrais and I have many thoughts about it that others might actually find interesting, but as I am still obviously a real novice in the karate world I can still only write about it as a personal journey and from the perspective of a Feldenkrais teacher, not with any pretence to expertise as a martial artist. I am afraid I have stored up my thoughts for so long this post won’t be short.
I probably wouldn’t even have started Karate unless my daughter hadn’t wanted to go to the ‘chinese fighting’ class with her boy mates from her class aged 6. (I know its not chinese) and I wouldn’t have joined in if it wasn’t a class with a lot of kids and a few parents rather than a full on adult class and if one of the dads I knew hadn’t pushed me a bit. And I wouldn’t have stayed if it wasn’t for the kind, long-suffering Sensei who has greeted my endless questions, observations and downright provocations over the last 5 years with patience and a slow smile and is sensitive enough to know when to push me and when to back off. And now as well as training with him I make at least a monthly (sometimes more) pilgrimage to the other side of London to work with a female Sensei who at 6th dan is one of the most senior in the UK (and is the most senior woman in the world) and whose extraordinary presence alone (and that of the many other women students she has) does a very good job in not letting me hide behind being a (rather small) woman – even in my head.
So what do I get from it? The challenge, the learning and – believe it or not, pleasure! Its important to remember that the Feldenkrais Method is actually rooted in the martial arts and was developed by someone who, for a formative period, had to fight for his life unarmed. I never met Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais sadly, he died in 1984, the very year I discovered and fell in love with the method but I have seen and heard enough to know that he was no delicate flower, no sanctimonious guru. He smoked, he swore (beautifully), he had a taste for rich french food – and women. In fact one practitioner who trained with him said if he thought you were trying to gurufy him he would do something ‘gross’ to put you off. He wanted you to depend on yourself not him. He has spoken and written about his life in the British mandate for Palastine when he was a teenager and young man (http://www.feldenkraisworks.co.uk/511/#more-511 ): how the British fomented trouble between arab and jew who had lived together peacefully enough till then and how when trouble arose the arabs would often be carrying knives because that was a normal part of their dress and the jews wouldn’t be because it wasn’t. It was as a result of the self defence manual he wrote for the jewish community there which he managed to get to Jigaro Kano Sensei when they were both in Paris that he came to meet Kano, train in Judo at Kano’s request, start the Judo club of France and write two books on the subject. But you just have to look at a young (or even an older) Moshe to know you would not want to be on the end of his fist or in his grasp if he meant you harm. That was one powerful man. All that soft, slow movement in his method is not for the sake of always being soft, gentle and slow. It is to be able to feel what you are doing and to eradicate unnecessary effort so that you can bring exactly the necessary amount of effort in exactly the necessary self-organisation and synergy of movement to an action to execute your intention simply and accurately. Nothing more, nothing less. Whether that is to open a door or take someone out with a punch. Whether it is to walk down the road or run a marathon; to have the quality of movement that enables the sensitivity of a gentle touch or caress or just the right amount of power to push, pull or strike. And, crucially, to live your life with clarity purpose and abilty to act accordingly.
These two photos of Moshe as a young and older man say so much about him: Very powerful and very gentle. I guess I have always been able to be reasonably sensitive and gentle and the method has been wonderful in enabling me to harness that and learn how to use it to enable others. Its not like that’s easy to do by any means, and all of us Practitioners go on learning to do it better for ever, but its closer to my self-image than its opposite. For while in many parts of my life these days I can actually act with a decent amount of competence, self-reliance, strength and clarity of purpose there are areas where that is not so easy for me, where my actions are still clouded with what Moshe would call ‘cross motivation’ (ie when you intend to do something but there are deeper, not necessarily conscious, internal beliefs and imperatives that set up a conflict with that intention and so warp the resulting behaviour/action – see ‘The Potent Self’ by MF) And Karate slams me right up against those places. And that is both really difficult and very interesting.
I am all backwards to Moshe Feldenkrais. He was a fighter and a martial artist early on. Not me at all. On one level the most powerful thing I had ever done with any facility before Karate probably is hit a tennis ball. I have always been reasonably fit and I have never been a weakling but I also didn’t see myself as particularly strong or powerful. Feldenkrais was the first thing (other than fencing, tennis (and acrobatics which I did very badly) that began to organise me for that potential except I didn’t know it and couldn’t apply it in that kind of situation. So when it came to organising a punch or a kick I just couldn’t find where that came from. I had no impact. Its taken me an eon to actually begin to apply what I know from Feldenkrais and put my whole pelvis into a push rather than tilt from the waist and prod Sensei (or whoever I am working with) with my fingertips. It’s a real case of lack of the image of the movement and a complete gap in my self- image because god knows I have done enough Feldenkrais to really know how to move my arms from my pelvis in any other situation and I teach it all the time. I can only say I have to overcome an enormous sense of wrongness and strangeness to push, punch, kick etc with force ,and much in me militates against it. And I am still sometimes shocked when Sensei or someone else pushes, grabs or strikes close to me during training. And yet the clarity of those actions is in its own way quite wonderful. The simplicity when it is done well. The snap of it. Everything goes into that action simply and directly. No messing about. No cross motivation at all. It just is what it is. Direct, powerful, sharp and clean. And even though Moshe did Judo not Karate, it helps me really get something of where he is coming from in pointing out that relationship between mature behaviour and the ability to act clearly. Karate takes me exactly to the place I start to bob and weave and duck out of it and make things nice and alright and do but not do it and complicate everything. But you can’t punch and not punch at the same time: it doesn’t work. You can’t block and not block or you get hit. And you can’t make it nice.
‘I can’t do that I’ll hurt him. Is that right? Am I getting it wrong again? Oh god I just made his nice white Karate suit dirty. I need to be harder and faster and more on target. OK. But musn’t hurt her. That would be awful. You’re not really expecting me to do that are you? Right I can do this. Really? I can’t just barge across her like that! Hell do I have to do this? That block really hurts. Goddamn it I’m not strong enough not to just drop him. How can anyone imagine I might be big enough to do that with this guy! Is he OK? Is it right? Did I hurt him? Is that too hard? Not hard enough? I shouldn’t be doing this really. How did I ever imagine I could do this. I am way too small/old/slow/crap. Oh my god that was fast. Hell I can’t do this. What was the next bit? Great. This is going well. NICE. oh that was wrong again. Oh no. God he must hate having to work with the old lady who can’t sort it out.’
Some of the rubbish that goes round in my head. No wonder its hard to remember what I am meant to be doing let alone just do the thing. I don’t notice this sort of thing going round in my head usually but oh man I can hear it shouting sometimes in Karate.
So I could avoid it. I could give up Karate. I could go through my life saying that is not for me. And that would be fine. I could live in the more comfortable situations where I feel respected; where I can be confidant, clear, simple and strong. Or I can just cope with the ego blow of being a bit rubbish and full of cross motivation – and learn something. Of course I could learn a huge amount doing a softer martial art, as there is so much to learn there too (and maybe at some point I will) and I would probably be a lot better at it than I am at Karate – but that’s the point. I don’t think I would quite have to face THIS stuff, because it is partly the hardness ( and so the strangeness to me) of Karate that forces me to look at that gap – or that muddle – and start to deal with it.
Pleasure? Well sometimes it is frankly painful learning. But equally often, or even at the same time, it is exhilarating and liberating. The moments of discovery or when it is working. That speed/strength, that explosive quality, the clear sharp intention of it, the snap from compliance to contraction and back again. The permission to be as forceful as that for a bit. The realisation that actually I can cope with a bit of force coming at me too. It feels astonishing and great: a very new language for me – and in that sense, very exciting learning and, yes, very pleasurable to do. I like learning how to use myself for that kind of strength. It feels really good. And it can be playful –the play of trying to catch someone out, surprise them. It often makes me laugh – to some people’s consternation. But then I see the glow of pleasure in Sensei Linda as she charges down the room for the hundredth time or the twinkle in Sensei Kevin’s eye when he gets neatly through my guard to point out a weak block or the silent crow of delight in a sparring partner who gets the final surprising strike of a combination home. And maybe for the first time in my life I do get why in Sensei Linda’s words ‘some people just love to train’.
And I am really interested in how Feldenkrais has prepared me for it (and continues to enable me because whenever I find something hard I go trawling through Moshe’s great works for lessons and insights to help me eg with side-kicks which my hips really do not like) and the things that are new/different for me. Awareness in slow movement helps of course, and I tend to take away the kata and combinations and even basic movements and practice them very slowly at home to really feel what’s in them and what all the parts of me are doing or need to do in relation to each other and where they are in space (they don’t do much of that in training at least not anything like the amount I want to do) and of course that helps. But then there is another whole jump to working at speed. Firstly there is no time to be aware of the whole movement. It has to be in you (from doing it slow perhaps) so that it pops out fully formed. You just have to have the intention and direction and that’s it. Well that’s to be expected I guess (and actually it is in the method too as MF often asks you to do something many times fast after doing it slow, its just that Karate combinations are complicated …) although it shocks me how much of myself I ‘lose’ at speed. ‘Your shoulder vic, your shoulder, your knee, what’s your hand doing?’ That is a surprise to me and its new to really hold all of myself in some kind of awareness at great speed in this context. I didn’t think that would be so.
But there is also something else – the movement at speed is not always the same as the movement done slow. It doesn’t work the same way. You can’t rehearse the ‘snap’ slowly. For example, there is a very particular use of the pelvis in relation to the arms in a punch. Done slowly it is one thing but at speed there is an extraordinary suddenness to the impulse that throws the (untensed) arm forward and then again in the brief backward return and stabilisation of the pelvis and the momentary co-contraction of arm, pelvis, core on impact and then the release from that moment which is qualitatively different. It isn’t just the slow movement speeded up. So it also has to be learnt and trained at speed. There are, no doubt, different muscle fibres involved but certainly a very different kind of instruction in the nervous system going on to enable that process. I had no idea how to do that for a long time and while I am getting it now, I have a long way to go with it still. Its not just punches either its everywhere in Karate – even in simply twisting out of the way (tai sabaki).
In fact that whole dynamic between tension/release and strength is fascinating for me as a Feldenkrais Teacher. What do you actually really need in terms of tension for power in those moments of impact and what is just carried over from habit? What does the karateka do because that’s their image of strength rather than what is actually really needed for a powerful impact? I am on a real quest with that one. It is so enormously useful for everyone in and out of martial arts. One of the biggest surprises for some of the black belts who attended a recent training weekend with a very eminent Sensei who currently heads the International organisation for Go Ju Ryu was that, as I was told by my Sensei, he spent a whole session on the mobility of the chest and spine whereas some (many?) of them have been used to over-tensing the chest all the time. And I can really understand that they would. Partly the training makes it hard to avoid (I have to do loads of Feldenkrais to keep my chest mobile with the amount of press ups and sit ups I am meant to be doing) partly it needs to be tense on impact and, I suspect, very significantly, it is simply many people’s image of strength: a ‘strong’ – for which read permanently tense/held/pushed – chest, isn’t it? And that’s not just an issue in Karate as all of us Feldenkrais teachers know! But Karate is the sharp end of that and so very interesting to me to study. One day maybe I will be able to persuade one of those black belts to come and lie on my table consistently enough over a long enough period to see whether finding a truly fluid chest can be strong BECAUSE it can be soft and mobile. My guess is that would be KILLER. I’m pretty sure of it. So come on, who is going to take me up on that?? Until then I have to see what I can do with myself. That’s going to be a long old haul because I have so far to go with learning Karate in the first place. But to me that’s really interesting.
And finally (well for now) I am different for it. A different shape for sure but also my head IS getting calmer in this kind of context in life even if it is a right old mess still in the dojo sometimes. Every now and again when you are a Feldenkrais teacher who works a lot one-to-one hands-on on her own in a studio, someone walks in who has the kind of history/issues that means they might do you harm. Usually the fact that they have come to Feldenkrais in particular means they are already on a journey away from that and are unlikely to, but you can never be sure. On two occasions I have known it was a reasonably serious possibility. Both those men tested me on first meeting me to see if I was going to be able to handle them (and crucially for them, that THEY could feel safe with ME) and it seemed very important at the time that I stayed extremely calm and did not flicker. While I seemed to pass the test both times and actually worked well with both for quite a while – and in one case several years – without serious incident, on the first occasion I flickered and he spotted it. It brought a torrent of (happily only verbal) abuse which only gradually disipated again as I regained my composure and was able to hold the space with clear equanimity once again. When the second man turned up a year or so later I could feel that while not perfect, I was much calmer in myself and more able to cope – and I am sure more karate under my belt helped (no pun intended). Not that I could have saved myself probably if he had meant me harm (which luckily he didn’t), but it didn’t feel so unusual to have that potential for aggression close up.
Well, I can’t keep wittering on because otherwise this will be a book not a post, but for any of you who are wondering what that lump of concrete on a stick is doing in the corner of my studio or why the hell your Feldenkrais teacher/friend/colleague is doing Karate or if you are just curious about Feldenkrais and Karate anyway – that’s at least the beginning of my answer Am sure there will be more to come. And anyone who wants to explore that relationship of tension, compliance, fluidity and strength: bring it on. I’M your Feldenkrais Practitioner.